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The Black Tom Explosion
H.R. Balkhage and A.A. Hahling
The American Legion Magazine, August 1964

The United States of 1914-1916 and its state of mind bore almost no resemblance to the country we know today. The First World War was raging in Europe, but we were not yet in it. "Preparedness" parades, spy scares, patriotic pleas to mobilize, every-mounting traffic in war goods, plus an odd Alice in Wonderland domination by a sense of right and wrong. These were among the intricate preoccupations during the teens before America's entry into the Great War.

Persons with foreign names, especially German names, were under enormous suspicion. Under equal suspicion was almost anyone caught strolling past a military post or factory that turned out munitions tagged for Europe.

Secret wireless transmiters; Germanic-appearing characters with fierce moustaches (cloaked in black) dashing about in touring cars in thc dead of night; "spies" who were allegedly poisoning wells or sowing germs like sunflower seeds -- all seemed credible and ominous in those days.

Much of this was hysteria. On the other hand, there was very real cause for concern over sabotage, though not for total panic. This concern could reasonably have commenced with the arrival of the new German Ambassador to Washington, sinister-appearing Count Johann Von Bernstorff, in August 1914, after war had broken out in Europe.

Von Bernstorff was accompanied by an unusual staff, spearheaded by Dr. Heinrich Albert, blandly listed as a "commercial attache." Also with him were: Dr. Bernhard Dernberg, propagandist; Capt. Franz von Papen, military attache; Capt. Karl Boy-Ed, naval attache; and a far more shadowy and little-known individual, Wolf von Igel (whose very name seemed to connote intrigue and conspiracy).

The most provocative aspect of this diplomatic "team" from Berlin was its "spending money" -- a whopping $150 million. And this was just a starter.

Like any consular group, the Germans were expected to try to influence public opinion in favor of their homeland.

However, von Bernstorff and company went considerably farther. As it turned out, the Count had brought with him as fine a viper's nest as ever writhed in Washington's embassy row.

In a very few weeks, on January 1, 1915, the first reptile eggs hatchedm -- incendiary fire in the Roebling Steel foundry in Trenton, N.J. It was followed, in rather quick succession, by fires and explosions in other plants and factories dealing in war contracts for the Allies. The next month there was a comic-opera climax in the clumsy attempt by a German army officer, Werner Horn, to blow up a railroad bridge linking Vanceboro, Maine, with Canada.

There could be very little doubt that Albert, Dernberg, von Papen, Boy-Ed and von Igel were bent on activities which were most undiplomatic. Theirs had turned into something other than a goodwill mission.

When von Papen was not roistering at Washington and New York night spots, he was busy in a "front" office at 60 Wall Street, in lower Manhattan, issuing false passports for German agents to England and France, and paying off a multitude of organizations and individuals spreading anti-Allied sentiment. There were many takers.

Even with all this frenzied activity emanating from the German Embassy, the security of America still was not exactly "threatened." Nonetheless, what


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